The Peixe are 2-1 behind after a difficult visit to the Andean city and cannot afford to take anything for granted for their return leg against the Bolivians on Thursday
By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
As Santos' continental supermen waltzed to success in last year's Copa Libertadores and marched through the group stage in 2012, it appeared that the Brazilian powerhouses had no weakness. Events in La Paz two weeks ago, however, made a lie of this. Neymar, Ganso and the rest of the Peixe superstars have their very own kryptonite, it would seem, and it is altitude.
Having gone down in their first game of the competition to The Strongest in the Bolivian capital, which stands a heady 4000m above sea level, the same fate befell Santos in the last-16 as Bolivar vanquished them in front of their own fans. The heights of La Paz cannot hog all the credit; take a bow Jhasmani Campos, who struck two impeccable free kicks to keep the Bolivians' dream of a stunning upset alive with a 2-1 home victory.
Thursday's return match in Vila Belmiro though, is, both literally and metaphorically, a return back to earth for the underdogs as they seek to do the impossible after the euphoria of victory in the Estadio Hernando Siles. The game is the halfway stage in the most important week of the year so far for Santos. On Sunday the Peixe will meet Guarani for the second leg of the Paulista final they have won the last two years; and just as for their Copa tie, a 3-0 destruction in the opener means that Muricy Ramalho's men start as red-hot favourites.
A Sweet Left Foot | Campos celebrates one of the strikes which put Bolivar ahead
There is good reason why, despite trailing after the first leg, the Copa holders remain favourites not just to get past Thursday's opponents but to go on to win the competition and repeat the back-to-back successes of Pele's men in 1962 and 1963. In Neymar, Santos hold South America's most valuable player; a player who, as he showed with a marvellous hat-trick against Internacional, can change a game in an instant and who deserves the current hype which puts him on a par with stars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the eyes of the Brazilian media.
Alongside the 20-year-old phenomenon, Ganso looks more assured and comfortable every day after almost 12 months rocked by injury and inconsistency, and the two youngsters are re-establishing the partnership which made both their names when bursting on the scene. Elano; Borges; the brilliant, young Rafael in goal; the list of talent goes on for Santos. But reputation means little in continental ties, much less when one team has a slender lead to play with and comes out determined to keep it intact. The altitude of La Paz may have played its part a fortnight beforehand, but that by no means implies that Bolivar did not.
Named after the 'Liberator of the Americas' Simon Bolivar, who helped free the Bolivian nation which also carries his name from Spanish imperial rule, Los Celestes without a doubt have the talent to make life very difficult for the Peixe. A large portion of the country's national side plays for the club, and as shown in the group stages, stars such as Campos, Walter Flores and Rudy Cardozo make Bolivar a formidable unit from the halfway line going forward.
|"The game against Bolivar will be very difficult and it is vital to us. We are behind, but we have won all our games this year in Vila Belmiro so we are ready and confident"
- Rafael looks forward to Thursday's match
The side can also point to imported stars. William Ferreira has become an idol for fans since moving in 2009 to La Paz, and only legal complications denied the Uruguayan goal machine and four-time LPFB top scorer a move to Spain with Real Valladolid at the start of last year. Universidad Catolica found out to their cost just how potent Bolivar can be: the Chileans were blown away in the final group game 3-0, sending them out of the competition and sending their rivals through to become the first Bolivian team in the last 16 for 12 years.
A repetition of that result would indeed be a shock, but it is unlikely to happen in Vila Belmiro. The visitors will look to pack men behind the ball, putting multiple markers on Neymar and Ganso in an attempt to crowd them out of the contest while hoping to hit on the break or through the magical left boot of Bolivia's highest-paid player Campos. Odds of 20.00 for a Bolivar win, opposed to just 1.14 for the Brazilian hosts, suggest that for bookmakers at least the result is a foregone conclusion.
Hopes are high around Santos and Sao Paulo that the Peixe can retain their title, becoming the first team to do so since Boca Juniors at the turn of the century. Neymar & Co. have to be wary, however; their opponents are out to make history of their own, and have the talent to force the champions to play at their very sparkling best if they want to follow in Pele's footsteps and stay on track for another triumph.